Beneath a Scarlet Sky (2017) by Mark Sullivan is an incredible fictional history of heroism and human frailty in war-torn Italy. Based on actual events in the life of Pino Lella, it follows Pino as he abruptly comes of age--one moment he's your average teenager wanting to see movies and have his first real romance and the next his home town of Milan is being bombed as the Allies make their way into Italy. His father sends him to a Catholic boys school in the Alps and there he is recruited by Father Re to help lead Jews to safety through dangerous mountain passes. But, as the age of forced conscription into the Axis forces draws near, his family decides that he should volunteer--in order to avoid being sent to the Russian front. He's injured one night on guard duty and finds himself assigned to be the driver for the second most powerful man in Italy--General Hans Leyers. This gives him an ideal opportunity to spy for the Italian Resistance--though his position in the Nazi camp will cost him one of his lifelong friends.
I found Lella's story very compelling and interesting. Most stories about World War II focus on England or France. This was the first I had read that centered on Italy. Sullivan does a good job portraying Lella as a very human and fallible hero. Lella was at his heroic best in the mountains. He led multiple groups of Jews through dangerous climbs--risking his own life and steadfastly encouraging them to go on when they thought they couldn't make it. He also braves the bandits who have claimed the mountains as their own and who have repeatedly warned him off climbing there. He also does well when working undercover as the driver--willing to lose the respect of his friend rather than tell him about his secret mission as a spy.
Human frailty takes over when the Nazi hold is falling apart and the woman he loves--Anna--is taken by the Italian mobs. Anna had been a maid in General Leyer's house and the angry mob denounces both Anna and her mistress as Nazi whores and then kills them. Anna begs them to spare her--telling them she was just a maid--and Lella watches, unable to speak out. His inability to be brave enough to save the woman he loves will haunt him long after the war is over. But his chance to brave again comes--will he be up to another challenge?
While the writing was not nearly as good as the story it needed to tell, I found the story compelling enough to overcome the writing's shortcomings. I especially enjoyed (if that word can be used about the horrors of WWII) the events in the mountains. Father Re was a very great man, filled with the purpose and belief that all men and women deserve help--no matter what personal risk he needed to take to help them. He inspired Pino Lella and other boys to be just as brave. ★★★★ and 1/2.
First Line: Like all the pharaohs, emperors, and tyrants before him, Il Duce had seen his empire rise only to crumble.
Last Lines: "I don't understand, Carletto. And the war's not over. I don't think it ever will be over for me. Not really."